History of Japan

Although the Japanese do not settle Japan until the third century B.C., humans had lived in Japan from about 30,000 B.C.. For Japan was not always an island. During the Ice Ages, it was connected to the Korean peninsula by means of a land bridge. All four main Japanese islands were connected, and the southern island of Kyushu was connected to the Korean peninsula while the northern island of Hokkaido was connected to Siberia. Stone Age humans crossed this land bridge in much the same way they crossed the Bering land bridge into the Americas. We can date these humans back to around 30,000 B.C. from the flint tools that they left behind.

   Then around 10,000 B.C., these original inhabitants developed a unique culture which lasted for several thousand years: the Jomon culture. As with all preliterate people, all we know of them comes from fragments of artifacts and the imaginative guessing of anthropologists and archaeologists. Jomon means “cord pattern,” for these people designed cord patterns on their pottery—the oldest of its kind in human history. Pottery, however, is a characteristic of Neolithic peoples; the Jomon, however, were Mesolithic peoples (Middle Stone Age). All the evidence shows that they were a hunting, gathering, and fishing society that lived in very small tribal groups. But in addition to making pottery, they also fashioned mysterious figurines that appear to be female. An ancient goddess worship?

   We divide the Jomon into six separate eras—ten thousand years, after all, is a long time and even preliterate cultures change dramatically over time. These eras are the Incipient, Initial, Early, Middle, Late, and Final Jomon periods.

   The Incipient Jomon, which is dated from about 10,500 B.C. to 8,000 B.C. has left us only pottery fragments. These pottery fragments were made by a people living in the Kanto plain on the eastern side of Honshu, the plain on which Tokyo is located. We have little idea what these fragments looked like when they were actually in one piece, but we believe that they were very small, rounded pots. The Incipient Jomon pots are a major challenge to understanding human cultures, for they represent the very first ceramics in human history, predating Mesopotamian ceramics by over two thousand years. The standard anthropological line on the development of human arts asserts that pottery-making developed after agriculture and is characteristic of a more sedentary culture. The Incipient Jomon, however, were hunter-gatherers who lived in nomadic small groups. Yet they developed the art of pottery long before agriculture was introduced into Japan—in fact, the Incipient Jomon invented pottery-making long before any human was introduced to agriculture. The Incipient Jomon, then, demonstrate that pottery-making is a human technology independent and distinct from agriculture.

   The Initial Jomon, which lasted from 8,000 B.C. to 5,000 B.C. is distinguished by the fact that we have pretty complete pots (isn’t archaeology exciting?) that were used to boil food. Like the fragments from the Initial Jomon, these aren’t just plain old pots, but are inticrately decorated in the “cord-like” structure that characterizes Jomon.

   The Early Jomon, from 5000 to 2500 B.C., corresponds to the single most interesting couple thousand years in human history. At the end of the last ice age, around 14,500 years ago, the world began to slowly warm. Between 5000 and 2500 B.C., the world reached its warmest in the millenia following the ice age—during this period, the average global temperature was about four to six degrees farenheit higher than it is today. Never again would the world be as warm as it was in these two centuries. Here’s the exciting thing: corresponding the steady warming of the earth was the development of agriculture, the single most important technological invention of human beings. Corresponding the warmest period since the last ice age were tremendous innovations in human habitation. It was in this period that human beings all over the world began to live in a more sedentary manner—at the beginning of this period, human beings begin to live in substantially sized villages; towards the end of this period, the very first human cities appear. The Jomon were no exception to this world-wide phenomenon. Completely cut off from all other humans, the Jomon also began to live in large villages in a settled lifestyle. These villages consisted of large pit-houses; the floors of these houses are about a foot below ground level. It seems they lived in extended family groups. The Jomon also developed their pottery work even further: they began to fashion figurines. It’s not clear what they are, animal or human, but they are the first Japanese sculptural art.

   In the Middle Jomon, from 2500-1500 B.C., the Jomon migrated from the Kanto plain into the surrounding mountainside. While the Old Kingdom Egyptians were building pyramids, the Yellow River kings developing the first centralized states in China, and the Sumerians building the very first urban centers, the Jomon, who had no awareness of people off their island, began to live in very large villages and developed very simple agriculture or proto-agriculture. They were no longer hunter-gatherers, but rather a skilled and settled people that developed increasingly sophisticated artwork with magnificent decorations. Their figurines now distinguish between animals and humans, and their human figurines have tantalizing but perplexing gestures whose meaning is now lost to us.

   The Late (1500-1000) and Final (1000-300) Jomon corresponded to the neoglaciation stage in modern climactic history. The world cooled noticeably (colder than today), and the Jomon migrated back down to the Kanto plain. At this point, the Jomon developed an identifiable religion—they produce a remarkable number of figurines and stone circles constructed outside the main villages begin to appear. The figurines they produce are largely heavy female figurines which suggests that the Jomon religion was a goddess religion.

   The Jomon culture, in essence a Mesolithic culture (although they display Neolithic traits, such as pottery-making), thrived in Japan from the eleventh century to the third century B.C., when it was displaced by a wave of immigrants from the mainland. These were the Yayoi, and their origins lay in the north of China. Northern China was originally a temperate and lush place full of forests, streams, and rainfall. It began to dry out, however, a few thousand years before the common era. This dessication, which eventually produced one of the largest deserts in the world, the Gobi, drove the original inhabitants south and east. These peoples pushed into Korea and displaced indigenous populations. Eventually, these new settlers were displaced by a new wave of immigrations from northern China and a large number of them crossed over into the Japanese islands. For this reason, the languages of the area north of China, the language of Korea, and Japanese are all in the same family of languages according to most linguists. Because Mongolian (spoken in the area north of China) is also part of this language family and because the Mongolians conquered the world far to the west, this means that the language family to which Japanese belongs is spoken across a geographical region from Japan to Europe. The westernmost language in this family is Magyar, spoken in Hungary, and the easternmost language in this family is Japanese.

   The Yayoi brought with them agriculture, the working of bronze and iron, and a new religion which would eventually develop into Shinto (which wasn’t given this name until much, much later). While we don’t know what these immigrations did to the indigenous peoples, there are several possibilities. According to one theory, which is widely accepted in Japan, the waves of Yayoi immigrants were very small. While they brought new technologies with them, they were nevertheless assimilated into the native Jomon culture. By this account, Japanese culture, particularly as it is represented by the Shinto religion, is very ancient and indigenous Japan. Some Japanese believe that the Jomon spoke an Austronesian language, that is, that the Jomon were more closely related to south Pacific islanders and that Japanese is still largely a Pacific island language. In the West, historians believe that the Yayoi displaced the indigenous Jomon and thus ended their culture permanently. The Yayoi displaced the indigenous language, social patterns, and religion of the original inhabitants. In this view, Japanese culture is a foreign import deriving ultimately from the north of China and ancient Korea, a view that is not popular among the modern Japanese.

   Whatever the origins of Japanese culture, it is clear that the Japanese language, social structure, and religion can be dated no farther back in Japan than the Yayoi immigrants. So for all practical purposes, the Yayoi are a new beginning in Japanese culture. The transition was dramatic, far surpassing even the transition represented by the industrial revolution. Japanese culture changed overnight with these new immigrants; eight thousand years of cultural placidity was dramatically hoisted into the agricultural age.

   The Yayoi lived in clans called uji . The clans were headed by a single patriarchal figure who served as both a war-chief and as a priest. Each clan was associated with a single god which the head of the clan was responsible for; all the ceremonies associated with that god were headed or performed by the head of the clan. These gods, called kami , represented forces of nature or any other wondrous aspect of the world; the Yayoi, we believe, also had accounts of the creation of the world by gods. When one uji conquered another, it absorbed its god into its own religious practices. In this way, the Yayoi slowly developed a complex pantheon of kami that represented in their hierarchy the hierarchy of the uji .

   The Yayoi lived primitively. They had no system of writing or money; they dressed largely in clothes made from hemp or bark. Marriages were frequently polygamous, but women held a fairly prominent place in the society of the uji . It is probable that women even served as clan-heads or priests; support for this possibility comes from the Chinese histories that first discuss the Japanese.

   The relationships between the uji were complex; slowly, territorial conflict gradually produced what came close to small states. The first Japanese state, however, would be built on the Yamato peninsula, the area into which Chinese influence began to flow in          200 AD.

Richard Hooker